On Tuesday morning, at a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill, Congressman Walter Jones, a Conservative Republican from North Carolina, said that when he was last visiting Bethesda Naval Hospital, he had talked with a young Marine who’d lost a leg in Afghanistan and was in a room with his mother.
“My question,” the Marine asked him, “is why are we still there?”
Then, at the hearing, Rep. Jones read out an e-mail he’d received from an unnamed senior military commander:
“Attempting to find a true military and political answer to the problems in Afghanistan would take decades … would drain our nation of precious resources, with the most precious being our sons and daughters. Simply put, the United States cannot solve the Afghan problem, no matter how brave and determined our troops are.”
Jones added, “I hope that sometime in between now and 2014, if things are not improving or they are fragile like they are now, somebody will come to the Congress and say the military has sacrificed enough. The American people have paid enough. And somebody would shoot straight with the American people and the Congress.”
His words echoed those of a young officer, the future senator John Kerry, when he testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971 after serving in Vietnam:
“We listened while this country tried to blame all of the havoc on the Viet Cong … We rationalized destroying villages in order to save them … We learned the meaning of free fire zones, shooting anything that moves …
“Each day, to facilitate the process by which the United States washes her hands of Vietnam, someone has to give up his life so that the United States doesn’t have to admit something that the entire world already knows … that we have made a mistake.
“How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”
Tuesday’s hearing followed the arrest of Sgt. Robert Bales, who is accused of going on a personal rampage in Afghanistan and killing 16 civilians, including children – basically an entire extended family. The incident recalls the infamous My Lai massacre in Vietnam, where up to 500 villagers were indiscriminately killed and mutilated. (Only one soldier was ever convicted of that crime: Lt William Calley was found guilty of killing 22 villagers, and served three and a half years under house arrest.)
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In the early 1990s, in the world of animal protection, a new movement began springing up all over the country. It quickly became known as the “no-kill” movement because of the growing number of people, mostly at a grassroots level, who were rejecting the accepted wisdom that there was no choice but to kill up to 17 million homeless dogs and cats every year in places we called “shelters.” Killing more animals, as most of the humane societies explained it, was basically the best, indeed the only way to save them.
The no-kill movement took off because it made so much sense to people. And while not every shelter felt they could go “cold turkey,” the leaders of the growing movement spoke of no-kill not as a future goal, but rather a way of living that you adopted as the first step. Going no-kill beganby taking killing off the table, and then, with that commitment in place, you were in a much better position to find or create new solutions.
Basically, we simply drew a line in the sand and said: “The killing stops here.”
It’s human nature to find excuses for killing. Not long ago I heard a conservationist explain that a herd of elephants needed to be “culled” in southern Africa because there were too many of them. This was right when we were learning that African elephants would be extinct within about 30 years. There weren’t really too many elephants; there were too many humans. As a result, the elephants were losing their homes and feeding grounds. But the solution, we were told, was to kill them.
The no-kill philosophy extends way beyond homeless pets. It’s a way of living that takes killing off the table – in every area once and for all. You can’t be no-kill and go hunting. You can’t be no-kill and be pro-abortion, pro-capital punishment or pro-vivisection. You can’t be no-kill and eat animals, either.
And you certainly can’t be no-kill and support going to war.
While the accepted wisdom, for thousands of years, has been that, in so many of our disagreements with each other, there’s no choice but to kill, the true wisdom is that there’s no choice but to stopthe killing, however difficult a step that appears to be at the time. (Only in retrospect, like now in Afghanistan, do we begin to question the supposed wisdom of launching a war there.)
Back in the world of homeless pets, it’s always a difficult decision. For starters, it means admitting that it was never necessary in the first place to kill those hundreds and thousands of animals at your shelter. How much more difficult, then, is it for military commanders or Congress people who have sent young men and women to kill and to die for purposes that seem increasingly vague and unattainable.
When you talk about no-kill, especially in the context of war, many people instantly jump to extreme questions like what should you do if the enemy rampages through your own town. They often accuse you of suggesting that we should have just rolled over and surrendered when the Twin Towers were felled.
But no-kill is not a sign of weakness; quite the opposite. And arguing hypotheticals and past history doesn’t help, largely because so many wars have always been an outcome of previous wars – an endless cycle of violence. Once again, only when you draw that line in the sand and take killing off the table do real solutions begin to appear.
One day, a more enlightened generation than our own may decide to give up killing as a way of resolving our disputes. Until then, we’ll continue to be entangled in the horrors of war and the destruction of the lives not only of the people who are killed, but also of those, like Sgt. Bales, who do the killing.